On the sidelines of the compact Duler stadium in Goa, Josline Dsouza blows sharp and hard on her whistle, marking the halfway point of the game. The women on the field trudge off; some collapse on the side, others douse themselves in water being handed out by teammates. On this sapping August day in the town of Mapusa, on India’s western coast, the ground has a smattering of spectators, and Dsouza has been called to officiate as a referee at a week-long women’s football tournament.It’s one of 60 matches she’s officiated thus far this season, including assignments both in the centre and as a linesperson.
“It’s a tough job,” she says later, during a chat. “You have to constantly keep looking at both teams and you have to be very fit.”
At 22, Dsouza is among the younger members of the state’s refereeing fraternity and one of just a handful of women doing the job in this tiny, football-mad, coastal state. The country is hosting the 2017 U-17 Boys’ World Cup, which includes seven women support referees—a first for a male tournament.
None are from India, but broadly speaking women referees, especially at the higher levels of the game, have been a rarity. In Asia they constitute just 6% of all referees, and 10% of the total globally, according to a FIFA 2014 survey. Recently, FIFA has been trying to overcome this gender skew, and the current tournament is one such step. So what does it mean to take charge in a sport widely still considered a male preserve?
In Goa’s sleepy villages football is as tribal as anywhere, the games are hard-fought and boisterous – and taken very seriously. A young woman with a sharp, short haircut and a mild manner, Dsouza worked her first game on the lines at an inter-village match when she was 20, two years ago.
“Sometimes it gets too much,” she says, smiling. “Sometimes they cross the line.” She gestured toward the field where the women footballers— from different parts of the country—were warming up. “These matches are calm, there aren’t arguments.”
India’s interest in football is of a more recent vintage, and women’s football is even more nascent, but it is gradually growing. However, in certain pockets of the country such as Goa, and Manipur in the northeast and Kerala in the south, football has had a longer and richer legacy.
Dsouza first cleared the exam for match officials two years ago, then again last year; she had to clear fitness tests as well as tackle theoretical questions on the theory behind the game. She has officiated at men’s and women’s games, though the latter are less frequent.
The story of her entry into football is much like the story of several women who had come to play at the Discover Football tournament, organised by a German non-profit, that week. The story usually starts with there being no women’s team at the school, or in the locality or at the college. Dsouza’s tale began the same way. In her first primary school girls barely played, when they did, they would kick around soft toys in the playground for want of a ball.
In 2006, when she was 11, her physical education teacher decided to start a team. No one wanted to be goalkeeper, so Dsouza stepped up, and embraced that position with relish. Her family was hesitant at first, and mildly alarmed at her passion for the game. “They said, do anything other than football,” said Dsouza, whose mother is a domestic worker. “No one thought there could be much scope in the game.”
Dsouza then played for the India U-13 team in 2008, and is now part of the Goa state team, which participates in tournaments played along state lines. But it was a moment in a local match that made her reconsider her role in the game.
At a school tournament in 2007 a goal her teammate scored was denied, an incorrect decision to her mind. “I thought, things should be better,” she said. “It can’t be so wrong. Maybe that’s what led me to refereeing.” It’s a challenge she has been thoroughly enjoying. “I have had bad referees and bad experiences,” she said. “It’s nice to do this because you can make correct decisions.”
Refereeing brings its own pleasures – and challenges. While refereeing at an U-14 boys’ tournament in the village of Candolim where she grew up, Dsouza was taken for a teenage boy, as often happens. “They didn’t realise I was a girl,” she said. “Then their coach told them not to argue. Some are more respectful than others when they realise that.”
But the older men can be much more aggressive sometimes, and wilier when they see a young woman is controlling the game. “They try to create chaos,” she said. “They try to take advantage of the situation and keep on confusing you. If you are new they will try to overrule your decision.” Then the crowd might get involved, and the rowdiness can escalate.
Dsouza prefers playing to officiating, but refereeing has sharpened her knowledge and fed her game. “It has been good for my development as a player,” she said. “It has matured my thinking.”
Male referees in the fraternity have been supportive, but it isn’t always easy. “Sometimes it becomes uncomfortable because it’s all men, it becomes awkward to speak with them because we don’t have anything in common other than football,” she said. She paused, then added: “But sometimes that’s enough.”